Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Your Story's Harmony Of Theme, Tone And Mood

In the world of story craft, you might have heard someone ask the question, "What's your story's theme?"

And for a long and awkward moment, you had to stop and think...gee, what is my story's theme? In some cases, when people ask this question, what they might be really asking is, "What's your story's point?" 

Theme and point often get confused concerning what their roles are in a story. From elementary school through high school, teachers have given us the task of writing one. The dreaded question teachers often asked when giving such an assignment is, "What's the theme of your story?" 

Why did we dread this question so much? Because oftentimes we had no idea what our teachers were really asking for.

Remember back to your grade school days when you once sat at your desk in class? The moment your teacher mentioned the word "theme", panic arrested your thinking. Sweat poured from your forehead. The room seemed to close in on you; breathing became nearly impossible.

You had no earthly clue what "theme" was, much less what the specific theme for your story was going to be. 

So with your head spinning, you spent the next hour in class trying to conjure up an interesting story with an equally interesting theme. Yet, you hadn't written the first word on your blank sheet of paper.

Forgive me for making you relive the horrors of grade school. But hopefully you see where this is going. If your sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Snodgrass, had simply asked, "What's the point of the story you intend to write?" instead of "What's the theme?", your memories of sixth grade would probably be a lot less traumatizing. 

In an effort to make sense of this perplexing word, let's give the word "theme" a closer look as it relates to story . Is it important? Extremely. But what exactly is it?

Let's examine a spot-on definition stated by Lisa Cron in her book, Wired For Story, which is in the form of two questions.

  • What does the story tell us about what it means to be human?
  • What does it [the story] say about how humans react to circumstances beyond their control?

Some authors and story coaches refer to theme as the "universal theme", which is also true. But the universal theme refers more to general motifs of a story such as love, acceptance, survival and respect. 

If we adopt Lisa Cron's definition of theme, then the theme for your story must be more specific. What your story says about human nature, and how humans react to circumstances beyond their control must be fleshed out in order to escalate the struggle between your protagonist's greatest goal and longstanding misbelief, otherwise known as the protagonist's "third rail".

In other words, use theme to shed light on the specific ways your characters treat each other, and how your characters respond to circumstances they can't control. 

For example, in a love story, the characters might argue, fuss and fight. But at the end of the day, they'll act amiably toward each other, and love will cover a multitude of sins. In a taut suspense story, the characters will tend to be suspicious of each other. Tension mounts among them as one character sets a chip on his shoulder, daring anyone to knock it off. And in a horror story, the characters will kill each other without hesitation--just to survive.

This is theme at work in a story.

In addition to theme, there are two other forces at work. They are tone and mood. So, how do theme, tone and mood work together in perfect harmony to tell a compelling story?  

First, let's look at what tone is as it relates to story. Tone is the overall feel, vibe or attitude of the narrative. Characterization, dialogue and setting all play a part in setting a story's tone. 

What does theme have to do with tone? Theme determines how the characters will act toward each other on a human level. The characters' interactions with each other will have an effect on how you craft the plot, dialogue and setting. 

Will the characters forbear and love each other? Will they examine each other with skepticism, or suspicion? Will they be so filled with primal rage that they desire to kill each other? Tone is the resulting sentiment in each of these scenarios, whether it be lighthearted, tense, or primal.

These are questions you should think about, then answer in as much detail as you can. Be specific. And keep in mind your protagonist's inner struggle as you write your notes. Once you've worked out your characters' interactions, you must craft everything in your story, especially your protagonist's overall story arc, to set the tone you define (lighthearted, tense or primal) for it. 

So, where does mood come into play?

Mood is the overall emotion or vibe your reader feels when she reads your story. What kind of atmosphere does the reader find herself in as she reads your narrative? Is the atmosphere uplifting? Is it somber? Is it dark?

If you set your tone effectively, your reader should subconsciously feel the resulting atmosphere, and even immerse herself in it. Will the tone make her happy, sad or angry while she reads your story?  What kind of mood will it put her in? This is part of what gives the narrative its enchanting power. 

Your reader will have no choice but the feel the overall emotion, or mood, that your tone sets. 

Remember this handy rule of thumb given by Lisa Cron in Wired For Story: "Tone belongs to the author; mood to the reader. In other words, your theme begets the story's tone, which begets the mood the reader feels."

The harmony of your story's theme, tone and mood is a key element in your narrative. You can evoke powerful emotions from the reader that will engage her, drawing her into the tale. Just be sure to take your story's point and your protagonist's greatest goal and longstanding misbelief into account while you craft the theme and tone.

You can deliver any message about human nature you choose when you craft your theme and tone appropriately to set your reader's mood. You can persuade her to adopt your point of view. With the right mood, she'll see things your way as she reads the story.

To get an better idea of how these three things work together, read the first few pages in some of your favorite novels. Try to identify the overall mood you begin to feel as you get lost in the narrative. 

Does the story make you laugh, cry or make you bite your nails down to the quick? How is it influencing your emotions as you read? Write your observations down. Then, find ways to implement the devices you observed in those novels into your own work to set the desired tone.  

Remember: Tone belongs to you, the writer. Mood belongs to the reader. 

Crafting the right harmony of theme, tone and mood in your tale will make it a book readers will want to read over and over again. It takes work, but your efforts will pay off in the end when you craft a novel readers can't put down.

Here's to your story writing success,

L. R. Farren
Author of From Bad Girl To Worse 
and The Dangerous Way Home

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Your Story's Harmony Of Theme, Tone And Mood

In the world of story craft, you might have heard someone ask the question, "What's your story's theme?" And for a long ...